A Graveyard Of Colonial Memories

Bitter memories of conquest and subjugation are most commonly expunged, post independence, by appropriating the edifices and symbols of a conquering power and imbuing them with national identity. Successive governments then milk political mileage by eradicating vestiges of colonial association from cities, streets. and maps.  Even in stubbornly resistant cities like Calcutta.

But how does a post-colonial country deal with monuments to the mortal remains of its colonial rulers? Those painful spaces of remembrance whose commemorative inscriptions are veritable proclamations of glory and martyrdom? Of sacrifice and service to God & King?

By abandoning and ignoring them. Until they disintegrate into the mists of time. Until any surviving epitaphs have little import on a generation far removed from the turmoil of conquest.DSC_9271 copy
South Park Street Cemetery, located in the heart of the city, just off a bustling thoroughfare that was once called the ‘Burial Ground Road’, is one such relic of Calcutta’s turbulent colonial history. It is said to be one of the earliest non-church cemeteries in the world, and the largest Christian cemetery outside Europe and the Americas.

And one that managed to survive.

A desolate space, despite its monumental tombs. Steeped in sadness and forlorn glory. Melancholy…yet deeply tranquil. Whose 1600, (mostly) poignantly young inhabitants, underscore the waste of it all.
South Park Street Cemetery - Kolkata
South Park Street Cemetery - Kolkata
South Park Street Cemetery - Kolkata
South Park Street Cemetery - Kolkata

PS: In 1978 a massive restoration of the decaying cemetery was undertaken by the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia. It is now maintained by the Christian Burial Board, Kolkata.

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

77 thoughts on “A Graveyard Of Colonial Memories

  1. What an interesting post. I’ve never thought of the cemeteries left behind when an occupying power leaves….

  2. I can understand the mixed feelings. (Me, I was born in Karachi AFTER the Partition!) 🙂
    But my great-grandfather’s tomb is in Ujain. (He worked for Rao Scindia, the Maharajah of Gwalior…) Maybe “mixed feelings” could be retitled “shared history”? My parents claim that I spoke Urdu before French or English. 🙂 Can’t remember much except for one word, which I believe is the same in Hindi: Shukriya for this very nice post!
    Take care

  3. Lovely post. I visited this cemetery in my university days, when I was re-reading one of Satyajit Ray’s detectuve stories named “Gorosthaney Shabdhan” (Beware of the Graveyard). The cemetery was beautifully described, and I wanted to find out if the names of the graves in the book actually existed. It does, I found out – but more importantly, I felt an overwhelming sense of beauty and futility amidst those piles of graves.

    I wouldn’t agree with the post-colonial neglect of colonial relics theory behind the cemetery though – because the other major Raj-era relics like the Cathedral, the Victoria Memorial, the Jora Girja, etc. are well maintained. The cemetery IS rundown – no doubt about that – but it’s as rundown as many other heritage sites and buildings – like the Marble Palace for example. There may be various reasons – and one of them being the state’s reluctance to get mired into anything that resembles religion-based favours – but that’s a bad excuse considering Bengal’s political narrative.

    Anyway, the reason for my rather long comment is the excitement generated at seeing these lovely snaps of a place for which I have a special place in my heart. I didn’t take photos back then, and wish I had. Many of my contemporaries from Calcutta would agree – coz this cemetery also happens to be a favourite coochie-cooing site amongst young couples from the nearby colleges. I wish more funds were allocated to maintain this place.

    1. Happy to meet you Sampurna! And thank you for contributing to this thread.

      My feelings are that the Raj era relics that could be appropriated for use are certainly in better condition, even if they could be better still. This was of no use to anyone, or it would have been appropriated as well. The marble palace is a private property and has nothing to do with the Raj or the state. I found the interiors a bit over the top, but very impressive by the way.

      Glad this post stirred fond memories 🙂

  4. What a beautiful place .. in its wildness – too many young men died fare too early, just like they still do in our wars. Nothing has changed, nothing is learned – that is the saddest part of it all.
    Here I would find peace, stunningly beautiful post, Madhu.
    Have I told you that I love your new look???

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